Curricular implementation of ict as a social process: Quest Atlantis

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Curricular implementation of ICT as a social process: Quest Atlantis in Australia

Margaret Lloyd

School of Maths, Science and Technology Education

This paper will present observations of the social interactions within an ongoing longitudinal investigation of the Australian implementation of Quest Atlantis, a multi-user three-dimensional (3D) online learning environment being developed at Indiana University. Specific social interactions will be described and an argument sustained that the curricular implementation of ICT is a social as well as technical and logistical process. The focus of the study which was conducted in 2003 and described in part in this paper was on the affective changes to teachers’ actions as they engaged with the curricular, technical and cultural dimensions of the implementation. The RITE Group (Research in Information Technology Education) based at the Queensland University of Technology and which oversees the Oz Teacher-Net took responsibility for hosting and supporting an Australian reference group as they dealt with the implementation in their differing educational settings. More information about Quest Atlantis can be found on its web site, Specific information on the Australian implementation can be found at or by following the links from the Oz Teacher-Net home page The study described in this paper was funded through a QUT Research Grant.

There is a temptation to describe the implementation of new technologies in classrooms in purely operational or logistical terms. While such considerations are necessarily important, they do not, in and of themselves, tell us much about what happens within the real dynamic of a classroom or the structures of a school, or, as in the instance described in this paper, what support structures are enacted to facilitate the implementation. This paper will outline the very human interactions observed as a community of teachers, students, instructional designers and software developers came together to trial a new technology in classrooms in Australia, the United States, Singapore and Denmark. This paper is premised on the understanding that the “diffusion of innovations is a social process as well as a technical matter” (Rogers, 1995, p. 4). While technical, logistical and cultural issues were considered in the study from which this paper is drawn, the focus here is on the embedded social processes at work.

The new technology investigated in this study is Quest Atlantis, a multi-user 3D virtual world developed at Indiana University (with National Science Foundation [NSF] funding). It is an interactive learning environment for middle school students (from 9 to 12 years) set in an imaginary place called Atlantis. Students “quest” by responding online to tasks which are linked thematically to the worlds within Atlantis. The aim is to rebuild the Arch of Wisdom and save Atlantis from destruction. The Atlantian cover story is extended into the pretence that quest submissions are reviewed by members of the Atlantian Council.
Quest Atlantis is built on an Active Worlds platform and is described by its director, Sasha Barab as sitting “at the intersection of education, entertainment and our social commitments … in the contexts of schools” (Barab, 2003). The synchronicity and role-play (through avatars) of this 3D environment, while common to online game worlds such EverQuest make it conceptually different to existing computer environments which teachers now offer to students. There are few rules and models to follow in this “edutainment” environment (Dede & Ruess, 2002) and even teachers with experience of ICT-rich classrooms need to rethink their management strategies and teaching approaches. The synchronous nature of the environment also poses new conditions for teaching and raises critical duty of care issues.

Background to Quest Atlantis in Australia

When the RITE (Research in Information Technology in Education) Group was asked in June 2002 to trial Quest Atlantis in the context of Australian schooling in collaboration with Indiana University, a decision was made to conduct a small-scale trial during the 2003 school year. Individuals across a range of schools were invited to become, with the knowledge, permission and co-operation of their schools, members of a Quest Atlantis reference group.

The criteria for invitation were the individual’s known technological expertise, willingness to innovate and to collaborate with others. A balance was sought in state and private schools and across geographic areas. For logistical reasons, members of the group were drawn from South-East Queensland. The motivation and expertise of the six foundation members of the reference group marked them as early adopters and therefore not typical of the broader population of classroom teachers. The willingness of schools to consent to participation also spoke of the culture of innovation in the selected schools.
A two-day workshop (August 2002) was convened by RITE and conducted by Sasha Barab introducing the reference group members and invited systemic leaders to the software itself and to its underlying teacher controls. An archived listserv was established on the RITE server at this time to support the group in their investigations and to capture research data. The teachers in the reference group also became members of a broader online community, the Atlantian Council of Teachers, hosted by Indiana University. The formal and informal processes facilitated by the RITE Group aimed to redress the belief among teachers that they have little opportunity for critical reflective discussion and that they generally find themselves developing their practice in isolation or at inappropriate in-service workshops (Reynolds, Treahy, Chao, & Barab, 2001).

Reference Group Interactions

Interaction between members of the reference group was maintained online (particularly through the RITE list) and through the convening of writing workshops through 2003. Meetings were also held online in the Quest Atlantis environment, occasionally with members of the development team from Indiana University. A focus group meeting was held at the end of the 2003 school year to debrief and plan future action. These interactions were facilitated by the RITE project officer, Bronwyn Stuckey and funded either by RITE, the Centre for Maths, Science and Technology Education or a QUT Research grant. The researcher took the role of participant observer in these interactions.

It is important, in establishing the context of the following interactions, to acknowledge how much students enjoyed Quest Atlantis and how surprisingly individualised were their experiences in the space. Teachers in the reference group found themselves dealing with increasingly early starts to the school day and, for the first time, receiving emails from students outside of school hours. All were surprised by the number of quests they had to review (including during school holidays) and spoke of tentative plans to train students to peer review or to involve parents or others in the process. The repercussions of this heightened motivation and activity contains seeds of school change in redefining the work of teachers and perhaps, more importantly, its devolution of power from teacher to student and its fracturing of the notion of the school day as a set period of time on given days. It positions Quest Atlantis as an instance where ICT is used as a catalyst to school change or reform (Downes et al., 2002).
The following will address five interaction types which emerged during the trial between teachers, the RITE project officer, researcher, students, and the Quest Atlantis developers at Indiana University. Four of the teachers in the reference group are directly quoted in this text and are referred to as Teacher A, B, C and D. Other interactions are mentioned incidentally in this text.
teachers: project officer: researcher

The teachers in the reference group “met” on- and offline and these meetings were consistently focussed and supportive. Peer support emerged as a strong element in the trial and was contributory to its success. The project officer visited each school and conducted orientation sessions for students and interested teachers. This on-site interaction allowed the resolution of many technical and logistical issues and helped teachers contextualise the project within their own school.

Teachers worked together in reviewing existing quests as well as writing new quests for the Queensland curriculum. The reference group, arguably because of the impact of the initial face-to-face meetings and impetus of the expert-led workshop, quickly became a team enacting Cuthell’s (2002) definition of a learning community as a social structure bonded by purpose.
Online, teachers shared anecdotes as well as information about technical “fixes” or management issues. They contributed, when appropriate, to the Atlantian Council of Teachers’ list. These interactions may be described as genuinely collegiate with collegiality taken to be a mutually positive attitude (and reciprocal interaction) between professionals (Fielding, 1999).
The liveliest interaction within the Atlantian Council of Teachers concerned student usernames. One student had called himself islam4ever and this, ahead of names like mutilator and useless, caused the community considerable angst. Messages were sent from almost all participating countries as the issues of free speech, self expression and identity were measured against the need for standard forms and protocols and duty of care within an educational environment. The discussion moved into an analysis of the purpose of naming and its role in the expression of power/powerlessness. It was conjectured that “straightforward banning” would be against the Atlantian spirit and a compromise was agreed to which used parts of the student’s first and last names. The newly formed community found its own way to create “norms, roles [and] procedures” (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991, p. 5) to counter this unexpected situation. A contributor to the list (from Denmark) offered the critical observation that “there are contradictions obtained when a new cultural form crosses the boundary of an existing cultural form” (Jensen, 2003).

teachers: students

All members of the reference group commented on the uniqueness of finding themselves in an environment where identities were not clear and there were seemingly few power structures. Adults and children were in the same space with ostensibly equal rights and little labelling to differentiate between them. Teacher A believed that “in their minds there aren’t adults and children” because she had heard one of her students say “Did you see this? I’ll have to email Bronwyn [the RITE project officer] and tell her.” Students from this class were also communicating directly with Teacher B and had been surprised to discover that she was a teacher. The RITE project officer had co-quested with some students and reported that there were no hierarchies within the relationship. When Teacher A’s students emailed her at home, they referred to her by her Quest Atlantis username.

There was a feeling (expressed at the focus group meeting) that this change in social contact patterns could be because there were no physical cues in the 3D world to establish or reinforce hierarchies. It was conjectured that this was because (a) the avatars did not have an identifiable age, and (b) naming conventions were applied equally to all “questers.” Students became as used to chatting with the developers as with peers. Teacher C’s students were unconcerned by his being in the same “space” and when they saw his avatar (displaying his first name) they simply said “Hello Mr P.”. They switched easily between the personas.
Working in the Quest Atlantis environment provided opportunities for teachers to talk to students about appropriate and inappropriate Internet use. The importance of passwords was made apparent through some breaches of security and it emerged that most students at the participating schools had not had personal passwords before. They had been issued with a class account and had little or no email access. Quest Atlantis provided a real world experience within a closed and secure environment. This sense of safety may also have contributed to the observed change in social contact patterns.

The teachers: students interactions were occasionally extended to include parents and carers. Teacher A shared a story about a student who is here called Joe. At about 7.45 one morning, her students said “Joe isn’t coming to school today.” When she asked if they had seen Joe, they chanted, “No, we’re talking to him. He’s here now.” Joe was in the Quest Atlantis environment. Later that morning, Joe’s grandmother emailed the teacher (within Quest Atlantis) to explain the absence. The online environment became an extension of real space, and as noted in Wexler (2000) the distance between home and school and the relationships between teachers and students became blurred.


Students interacted through informal encounters in the online space and more formalised co-questing structures. Teacher D reported that one of his students had become an avid reader of the Narnia stories after a conversation with a student in the United States. The conversation between these students has continued and is now focussed on the shared reading experience.

Teacher C reported that a number of his students had arranged “rendezvous with American kids” outside of school using home Internet connections. He thought it interesting that while the students were comfortable in this open environment, his teachers remained unconvinced of his view that “when you restrict it, you limit it.” They wanted to make Quest Atlantis “fit” current structures. Stoddart and Niederhauser (1993) noted that “to the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice and that, to the degree it cannot be bent … it will not be used.” Teacher C’s school was dealing with the issue of “fit” which he described in terms of “coming to grips with” and “grappling.” The interactions between the teachers in the reference group and other teachers in their schools were often fraught with contradictions of purpose and conflicting priorities.
Teacher A’s students suggested a logistical fix to their school’s problem of access by proposing a simple roster to relieve pressure on the server. The online “democracy” and blurring of hierarchies seemed, in instances like this, to extend into offline interactions. It would, however, be unlikely to occur in environments where students were not generally included in decision-making, and just as Dexter, Anderson, and Becker (1999) found, ICT merely reinforced and replicated constructivist and collaborative practice and cannot, in and of itself, create it.
The behaviours and actions of the students within the Atlantis environment were remarkably individual, and although a full discussion is outside the scope of this paper can be categorised as (a) purposeful, in responding to quests, acquiring “points” to develop an online persona, or in becoming familiar with Atlantis as an alternate environment, and (b) social, in terms of communicating with others (both known and unknown) and in replicating off-line behaviours.

teachers: project officer: researcher: Quest Atlantis developers

There were repeated instances of the project officer and the teachers in the reference group having a direct influence on the Quest Atlantis development. It was an unexpected but welcome component of the trial and represented a valuable professional development opportunity. The project officer interceded with the developers on important issues, particularly those of duty of care and establishing conventions of participation (including permissions and affiliations) which enabled effective tracking and monitoring of students in the environment.

Individual teachers posed questions which were frequently answered by Sasha Barab or other Quest Atlantis developers. There was a direct and causal link from the initial workshop to changes in the Quest Atlantis environment, particularly the recording of instructions using voices with other than American accents. These interactions had the effect of empowering the teachers in the fledgling reference group and making their involvement truly collaborative. It is unlikely, with the diffusion of Quest Atlantis as a mature technology and across larger and less expert populations, that this interaction could be maintained.
Another unexpected interaction was between the developers at Indiana University and the technical gurus of Education Queensland. This interaction resolved the firewall issues which initially stood to scuttle the participation of any state schools in the trial. The questions posed by the technicians to the researcher about requirements were answered collaboratively by members of the reference group. Systemic officials also came into this loop of communication, usually through the researcher and project officer.

students: Quest Atlantis developers

Teacher C reported that he had a group of Year 7 students who had begun to email the developers at Indiana University directly. He noted that:

… they seemed to be on one-to-one speaking terms with Sasha and Bill and Ron and anyone in power … and actually asking them questions like ‘How come we can’t get into these worlds? What’s going on? I want to do this,’ so they're sort of getting … technical feedback from the guys as well.
At one point in the trial, “jobs” were offered to questers. One of Teacher A’s students wanted a job but did not have enough points and so she emailed Sasha Barab directly to argue her case. She got the job. There was a sense from students that everyone within Quest Atlantis was accessible to them and they, quite democratically, could speak to everyone in the space irrespective of their age or position.

The interactions described in this paper are revelatory, above all, of a learning community at work (Cuthell, 2002) realising the curriculum implementation of ICT as a social process. The members of the reference group in this study commented on the critical role of the group in sustaining the implementation in their schools. The interactions are also indicators that ICT does have the potential to change classrooms and school structures as teachers and students began to interact differently and students became more active in decision-making processes.

It is generally held that the Quest Atlantis in Australia trial has been a success. Students have enjoyed and benefited from their online experience, and the teachers in trial have similarly enjoyed their participation benefiting personally and professionally through membership of the reference group. This paper however cannot conclude without an acknowledgement of the effort, time and resources expended to achieve this success.
The implementation of an innovation like Quest Atlantis will not happen without social interaction and interdependence between its participants. The curricular implementation of ICT, consonant with teaching and learning itself, is a social process.


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